Glossary

Don't know your Baritone from your Bass? Your Singspiel from your Sitzprobe? Read on as we explain some of opera's more common words and phrases.

  • Alto - the lowest type of female voice, not too common in opera, as most singers are too busy trying to go up in the world.


  • Aria - aria is the word given to a song in opera, where the emotions of the characters come to the fore.


  • Baritone – a male voice that lies between the tenor and the bass. Sometimes not to be trusted, they often play the villain of the piece.


  • Bass - a low male voice. Noble, wise, sometimes comic, but mostly slow moving.


  • Bel Canto - literally means ‘beautiful singing’ but often denotes singing that is very emotional and full of expression and phrasing.


  • Coloratura - refers to elaborately ornamented singing – adding colour to the melody.


  • Continuo - usually found in baroque or early classical opera, the continuo provides accompaniment for recitative. Often played on harpsichord, cello or bass.


  • Countertenor - a high or falsetto male voice, similar in range to a mezzo soprano. An acquired taste according to some, we’re big fans.


  • Maestro - the conductor of the orchestra in an opera is often referred to as maestro - simply the Italian for master. He/she calls the shots.


  • Da Capo Aria - an aria with two distinct musical themes. The A section begins the aria, followed by the B section in a contrasting style, and finally the A section is repeated with embellishments from the singer. Very common in Opera Seria.


  • Mezzo-soprano - a low female voice, usually more wily than the sopranos.


  • Opera - literally the Italian for work, an Opera is a musical drama where the action is sung instead of spoken with an orchestra accompanying the singers.


  • Opera Buffa - developed in the 18th century, Opera Buffa is often comical in nature dealing with the lives of ordinary people.


  • Opera Seria - literally 'serious opera', Opera Seria usually refers to Italian opera from the 18th century often focused on classical themes, such as gods and heroes.


  • Grand Opera - Just like it says, grand opera is on a grand scale, think large casts, big sets and lots of pomp and circumstance!


  • Tragic Opera – let’s face it, opera doesn’t always convey the happiest of tales. A lot of opera will have moments of tragedy. Unfortunately, someone usually dies at the end.


  • Operetta – a light opera, both in music and subject matter. No tragedies here. Phew.


  • Overture - an orchestral piece of music played at the begging of an opera before the singing starts.


  • Prima Donna - first lady or the singer performing the lead female role. Historically, prima donnas got a bit of a name for themselves as being demanding – luckily our leading ladies don’t follow this tradition.


  • Recitative - the name given to the conversational singing that drives the story forward. It happens between arias and is usually accompanied by the harpsichord and solo cello. Look out for it in baroque and classical opera.


  • Répétiteur - A member of the music staff who plays piano or harpsichord accompaniments for rehearsals before the orchestra joins. They provide valuable coaching, assist in rehearsals and sometimes perform in the orchestra too.


  • Singspiel - a German opera with spoken dialogue – like The Magic Flute.


  • Sitzprobe - the rehearsal where the orchestra and singers meet for the first time to focus on the music –no acting here!


  • Soprano - a high female voice. Typically, the beautiful young romantic lead who hits the high notes. Things don’t always end well for them however…


  • Surtitles - Opera is often sung in its native language with the translation projected on to screens above or to the side of the stage.


  • Tenor - a high male voice. Often the romantic lead with great high notes.


  • Toi toi toi – just like theatre has ‘break a leg’ opera has ‘toi toi toi’. We’re not fussy though, good luck serves just as well.

Is there any opera terminology that confuses you? Let us know and we will add an explanation here.